Towing on the first Welland Canal?

The Welland Canal, Capt. Bonnycastle 28th June 1837

In the history of the Welland Canals, steam plays a major role after the appearance of the first propeller-driven vessel in 1841.  Before that point, the use of steam is so marginal that it is almost entirely overlooked.  Towing was a process that involved animals and people directing them.  On the Rideau Canal and the other locks that supported the triangular movement of trade down the St. Lawrence and up the Ottawa Rivers, the locks were designed to support small steamers that towed the canal boats through the connecting lakes and rivers. Was this ever done on the Welland?

When the first grand transit of the canal was announced late in 1829, it was reported that:

“It is intended to assemble at St. Catharines at 6 o’clock A.M. and to proceed up the mountain to the River Welland, where a steamboat will be in waiting to tow any vessel in attendance to Chippewa, on the following day to sail to Black Rock and Buffalo and return to St. Catharines on Thursday.”[1]

Despite the reference to a steamboat standing by to tow any vessel, the accounts of the passage only recounted:

“locking down into the Welland river, sailing down that river, and touching at Chippewa; stemming the strong and broad currant of the Niagara; and, finally, the Black Rock harbour, which has been blamed beyond measure, opened its arms and gave the “tars of Ontario” a glorious hug.”[2]

The absence of towing in the final story may be the result of the opening being postponed.  Initially, it was announced that the “Grand Celebration” would take place in the spring.[3] Perhaps the steam tug was laid up at the point that its owners thought the plan was off.

What steamboat did Merritt think was going to come up to Port Robinson to undertake the tow?  All but one of the Lake Erie steamboats had come down the Niagara River in September 1827 as part of the grand spectacle when they tried to sail the schooner Michigan over Niagara Falls.  All of them passed back up the River again, largely through the lock at the bottom of the harbour built at Black Rock.  Given that the planned November 24th Grand Celebration was after the end of the 1829 season, Merritt probably called on one of those boats to stand by to tow.

But sailing up Chippawa Creek was a different proposition, as would turning her at Port Robinson. At one time the only alternative would have been the steamboat Chippawa.  Of all the candidates, at 63’6” in length, with a 16’ beam and an overall depth of hull of only 5’5” she had an even smaller hull than the schooners for whom the canal was designed.  Obviously, the paddle wheels added to her beam, but there is no record of by how much.  She had already proven she was capable of towing vessels downstream, because she had been the one to draw the Michigan to her fate at the Falls. The only problem is that it has proven impossible thus far to verify Chippawa’s existence after the end of the 1827 season.  A replacement on the Buffalo – Niagara Falls route would not appear until 1834.

William Hamilton Merritt, the principal figure in the Welland Canal Company, produced an account of the project in 1828 that justified the path down the Welland River and up the Niagara. He noted that “any steam boat may approach” the main line of the canal via the Welland.

“The Welland River is a large stream peculiarly adapted for an extensive navigation … [that] extends with almost a dead level from thirty to forty miles into the country. The company have power to construct a towing path on the Niagara river, from Fort Erie to the Welland, and thence up ten miles, until it intersects the canal by which vessels may enter, or return without any obstruction from lake Erie, by passing the ship lock now constructed at Black Rock.”[4]

And had those tow paths actually been created?

The 1829 annual report of the company said “a tow-path will be formed on its western bank, which is now in great forwardness.”[5]  In June 1830, Robert Randal wrote “The towing path on the banks of the Welland is incomplete, as is that from thence to Fort Erie.”[6] The following winter Randal produced another report where he wrote “The towing path from the locks at the head of the Deep Cut to the mouth of the Chippawa Creek will cost about one thousand pounds; two thirds of this distance have been completed.”[7]

In his 1833 letter in support of one of the Welland Canal petitions to the Upper Canada House of Assembly, investor J. B. Yates wrote:

“A considerable sum was ultimately expended on the Welland river for a towing path and the cut across the point at Chippawa. After some further progress in the work, in 1829, it was ascertained that the funds must again be exhausted, and the work stop, or more money be procured.”[8]

It is clear in almost every account of the Welland Canal, that opening the canal via the Chippawa Creek/Welland River was a stop gap measure, with construction beyond the Chippawa beginning in 1831, and that section opening in 1833.  In the meantime, any vessel using the canal had to pass along the Chippawa and, if upbound, against the current of the Niagara River. By mid-1831, a towpath on the Creek was still only two-thirds constructed, and there was no alternative for the Niagara River. So how did schooners and sloops pass the sections without a towpath?

The notion of steam towing was certainly not a novel one in 1829. Indeed, elsewhere the Ottawa – Rideau – St. Lawrence route steamboats were actively engaged in expediting the passage of canal boats and Durham boats. But there is no evidence of them at this stage on the Welland except that single sentence from November 1829 suggesting that a tug would be available to bring vessels down the Chippawa and up the Niagara.



[1] Patriot & Farmer’s Monitor (Kingston, ON), Nov. 26, 1829 ( quoting Colonial Advocate (York), 19 Nov. 1829, p. 3, col. 2. (  The Upper Canada Herald (Kingston), 25 Nov. 1829, p. 2, c. 4 ( said the invitation had come from the Secretary of the Welland Canal Company. It also quoted the line about the Steam-Boat in waiting.

[2] Cleveland Weekly Herald, 10 Dec. 1829 quoting Buffalo Republican ( as did the Detroit Gazette, 17 Dec. 1829 (

[3] Upper Canada Herald, 9 Dec. 1929, p. 3 quoting St. Catharines Journal (

[4] William Hamilton Merritt, Account of the Welland Canal, Upper Canada (c1828), 2, 5-6 (

[5] Report of the Welland Canal for 1829 (31 Dec 1829), p. 5. (;view=1up;seq=9)

[6] First general report from Robert Randal, Esquire: the commissioner appointed “under and by virtue of” an act passed in the eleventh year of His Majesty’s reign, entitled, “An Act to grant a further loan to the Welland Canal Company and to regulate their further operations”, February 8th, 1831, p. 7.  The report was dated by Randal at Chippawa, May 31st, 1830 (;view=1up;seq=12)

[7] First general report from Robert Randal… (signed York, 4th February 1831) (

[8] Report of the Committee of the Commons House of Assembly of Upper Canada, relative to the Welland Canal: with the letter of J.B. Yates, Esq. to said committee; some editorial articles from the Patriot, a newspaper edited by Thomas Dalton, Esq., city of Toronto, U.C. and extracts from the speeches of members of the provincial parliament, on the discussion of measures proposed for the completion and efficient support of that important work : also an extract from the report of Benjamin Wright, Esq., a distinguished engineer employed by the government commissioners to examine and report on the situation of the canal (1834) (;view=1up;seq=12)

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